Recent killings in Texas and Colorado are the suspected work of white supremacists, and may involve gang leaders in prison. The murders began in January with the slaying of a Texas assistant district attorney, followed by the director of Colorado prisons, and most recently, the Texas assistant district attorney's boss. The killings are suspected retaliation for the prosecution and imprisonment of Aryan Brotherhood members. Some, however, have cast doubt on this theory.
Regardless of whether this spike in extremist violence is the work of white supremacists, it nonetheless highlights a different face of American terrorism. And if there be any doubts that this is terrorism, one need only consider the U.S. Attorney who withdrew last week from a white supremacist case, citing "security" concerns.
This is textbook terrorism. At the very least, these events should awaken us to the formidable power of white supremacist gangs, both in and out of prison.
In particular, the Aryan Brotherhood distinguishes itself as an ultra-violent organization that is capable of inflicting terrorist casualties. According to research, the group represents less than half a percent of the federal prison population, yet is responsible for 20 percent of the murders. The group also tops the list of prison gangs most capable of using IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).
Despite the documented dangers posed by white supremacist groups, debates about violent extremism have been largely dominated by a focus on Islam. Indeed, there have been multiple congressional hearings about Muslim radicalization, yet, recent studies indicate that domestic or so-called "homegrown" terrorism by Muslim-Americans has dropped for the third straight year. Some of the drop is due to prison converts and other Muslims helping to thwart plots.
Reports from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) indicate that Islamic terrorism is declining after a brief spike in 2009. The Triangle Center charts a decline in the number of individual indictments for violent terrorist plots, while CRS charts a decline in the overall number of terrorist plots. Both data sets suggest a subtle shift from organization-oriented plots to individual actor or "lone wolf" operations.
Both reports also indicate the relative rarity of deaths due to Islamic extremism. According to the Triangle Center, since 9/11, there have been 33 lives lost due to Muslim-American terrorism in the United States, compared to 180,000 murders committed by Americans in the same period.
The occurrence of terrorism linked to prison, according to the CRS report, is even rarer. CRS notes that in the post-9/11 era there is only one documented case of a prison-based jihadist plot in the U.S., findings that are echoed in another recent report by the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding (ISPU), which underscores the rarity of violent radicalization in prison.
The ISPU report posits that to whatever extent radicalization does occur in prison, the ideological motives typically involve domestic disaffections. Whether from grievances based on experiences with law enforcement, the court system, prisons, or guards, the justice system is viewed by some Muslims as anything but just. At the extreme are those driven by the notion that America is "at war" with Islam; with Quran-burnings, mosque-burnings, spying on Muslim communities and real-life war against Muslim countries, inmates find plenty of fuel for radicalization at home.
The ISPU report also indicates how backfired prison policies have stoked radicalization instead of work to stop it. One prominent way is by chaplain-hiring policies that have hampered qualified Islamic religious leaders from entering prison. The resulting gap in Muslim chaplaincy has left prisoners to fill the void. One unsavory outcome is that religious authenticity is diluted by unqualified religious leaders, or worse, by prisoners with their own agendas and interests.
Even with such lessons learned the hard way, as a whole, these reports indicate the pulse of Muslim radicalization in the U.S. is weakening. Prisons are no exception, and with an estimated 350,000 Muslims incarcerated, the numbers emphasize just how few ever cross the threshold to extremist violence. In contrast, the latest string of suspected white supremacist violence involved at least one paroled prisoner and likely others in prison. This unfolding drama should be a wake-up call for any who think that Muslims hold a monopoly on terrorism.